USA TODAY International Edition
Truthfulness a concern in Trump probe
Portions of grand jury report out Thursday
A Georgia grand jury is concerned witnesses lied in their investigation of former President Donald Trump and his allies’ efforts to interfere in the state’s 2020 election, raising the specter of potential charges.
Descriptions of the alleged lies could be unveiled Thursday, when parts of the grand jury’s long- awaited report on the Trump probe is made public. Though the witnesses won’t be identified and no one has been charged, prosecutors could pursue perjury charges as leverage to broaden the investigation, according to legal experts.
Charges for lying to investigators or perjury are rare because they can be difficult to prove and peripheral to the main case, according to legal experts. But federal prosecutors have convicted witnesses in recent years with lying to authorities during previous investigations of Trump.
“That expands the scope of potential defendants quite a bit,” said Clark Cunningham, a law professor at Georgia State University. “It also opens up the possibility for the district attorney to proceed immediately with perjury indictments, which would be pretty straightforward.”
A perjury charge in Georgia, which carries a maximum 10- year prison term, could be used to leverage testimony for more serious conspiracy charges carrying a maximum 20- year term, according to legal experts. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis hired an expert in conspiracy cases against Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations and legal experts said she may pursue RICO charges in this case.
A RICO charge alleges the suspect participated in at least two crimes, as part of a pattern of criminal activity. State and federal prosecutors – including Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani – have wielded RICO laws in recent decades to combat organized crime and drug dealing. Dozens of charges qualify to build a RICO case, including perjury, bribery and tampering with witnesses or evidence.
Willis has brought RICO cases against Atlanta school officials and alleged gang members, which is why some legal experts expect her to use the statute in the Trump investigation.
Tom Morgan, a criminology professor at Western Carolina University and a former district attorney in DeKalb County, Georgia, said he probably wouldn’t pursue stand- alone perjury charges from a grand jury because those cases are difficult to prove. But he said perjury felonies could become part of a broader RICO case.
‘ Testi- lying’
Perjury carries a prison term of one to 10 years and a fine of up to $ 1,000 if convicted under Georgia state law. It’s defined as “knowingly and willfully” making a false statement under oath in a judicial proceeding about something important to a case.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney said the part of the report to be released Thursday “discusses the concern that some witnesses may have lied under oath during their testimony to the grand jury.”
Defenses against perjury charges include witnesses thinking they were telling the truth or making a false statement without knowing it was a mistake.
An average of fewer than 30 people per year during the last decade were charged with perjury in Georgia and fewer than 10 per year were convicted, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Yearly convictions twice peaked at 17 during the last decade and there were none last year, GBI said.
Samuel Gross, a law professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, said perjury is common, but prosecution of it is rare. Anecdotally in civil cases, witnesses sometimes lie in response to questions they consider unrelated to the point of the case, Gross said. In criminal cases, police might lie about the justification for a search or defendants might lie to avoid being found guilty, he said.
“Perjury is really, really, really common,” said Gross, referring to a phrase he doesn’t like: “testi- lying.”
Feds have convicted witnesses for lying to investigators
Federal prosecutors have charged witnesses with lying to investigators, either as stand- alone charges or in combination with broader cases.
Among the convictions in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election were retired Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, of lying to FBI investigators; Rick Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign chairman, for conspiracy against the United States for making false statements; George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, for making false statements to the FBI; and Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer, for making a false statement to investigators. Trump later pardoned Flynn, Papadopoulos and van der Zwaan. Gates cooperated with prosecutors.
Special counsel John Durham’s only conviction in his probe of how the Russia investigation got started came when former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to falsifying an email used to support the surveillance of a suspect.
What is Fulton County investigating?
In Fulton County, Willis asked the special purpose grand jury to investigate attempts to interfere with the 2020 election.
The inquiry covered Trump’s call on Jan. 2, 2021, to state Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, asking him to “find” enough votes for Trump to win the state. Trump has denied wrongdoing and described the call as “perfect.” Another aspect of the inquiry deals with the Trump campaign recruiting an alternate slate of presidential electors, in an attempt to switch Georgia’s results from President Joe Biden to Trump.
The 75 witnesses who were summoned included Trump advisers such as Giuliani; Sen. Lindsey Graham, RS. C.; and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R- Ga.
Giuliani, who was told he is a target of the investigation, testified to state lawmakers about alleged voter fraud. Graham called Raffensperger and his staff in the weeks after the election. Gingrich advocated a strategy to have the House decide the election, which Trump would have won because a majority of state delegations were Republican.
Giuliani, Graham and Gingrich have each denied wrongdoing. No charges have been filed and their testimony hasn’t been revealed.
Cunningham said if he were Willis, he wouldn’t charge Trump immediately – even if he could – because the former president has numerous defenses that could slow down the case. Instead, Cunningham said people charged with perjury could become cooperating witnesses against higher- level conspirators.
“That puts the district attorney in a position to immediately start working with defendants who might become cooperating witnesses and could really open things up,” Cunningham said.